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From the Architect's Desk



In From the Architect's Desk

By lthomas

First things first.

On 14, Nov 2016 | In From the Architect's Desk | By lthomas

Triage. The act of first things first. Also known as strategic thinking. Or as Wikipedia defines it:

“Triage, a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition so as to treat as many as possible when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately”


“Business triage involves categorizing desired outcomes and goals and the processes that support them based on their relative importance to achieving a stated measurable goal or outcome. Using the same triage categories employed by military medical and disaster medical services, business processes are categorized as essential/critical, important/urgent, or optional/supportive…”

I like to think of triage as a three-step process of decision making that can be applied to many things. Personally, I apply triage-like thinking in both my design work and my role as a business owner and manager.

In design, this method of strategic or triage thinking is critical. So many times a client cannot seem to get off first base, overwhelmed and frozen by their inability to select or visualize what I know to be a detail or “later!” issue. I understand this, and part of my skill as an architect lies not only in quality and thoughtful design, but in prioritizing decisions to keep the project manageable. I have been told, “I can’t move into my renovated and finished house even though I hate my temporary housing because my drapes are not ready.” And, “I can’t start on a new house design because I don’t know what the wallpaper and paint scheme should be.” To me this is putting the cart before the horse. Here’s how I triage a design project:


  • In order to have a successful project one must decide what are the most critical issues to tackle first. The BIG ones. The largest and most important outcomes and goals. I like to think of this as the BIG ideas and the BIG moves. I say,” First things first. Get your homework done. What are we doing? Are the site and project viable? Let us study and consider the BIG ideas. The essential issues. Where are the major components going and how do they relate to one another? Let’s pick one direction and then begin.”
  • Next I tackle the mid-size issues. These are things such as exterior and interior materials, general placement of windows and doors, sizing refinement of spaces for furniture and circulation. Do I want to look out the window or at my family from the kitchen sink? Could we fit a small table here? Should we use cedar or hardiplank siding? Stone or brick masonry? Metal roofing? Clad or wood windows? Door or window here? These are examples of mid-size important issues.
  • Now the details. These are the supportive (but never unimportant!) issues. It is said that God is in the details. I often say, “The devil is in the details.” They are the small, elegant and delightful moves and touches that can make it all sing, or make me sigh in dismay when they are missing, A beaded edge on the casing. A small wood handrail reveal or framed view to a fountain. Refinement is in the details.


Indeed, this methodology works for my business decisions too, as I am not only the architect, but also the business owner. So, triage. Don’t get stuck on the small stuff when the big issues are going to pull you under.


  • Plan for the BIGGEST issues, the essentials, first. What cash do I need to generate or have on hand to expand? How do I achieve this? Am I willing and able to take on risk?
  • Consider mid-size issues, the important but not critical ones.Who do I need and what tasks can each do to support my plan? Clients? Partners? Employees?
  • Focus and finalize on the supportive details. Where will the office be? What should the office feel like? Where does everyone sit? What are the details that need attention? IT? Consulting? Marketing? Or the really important issue: the design and location of the office chocolate bowl.

One, Two Three. Triage is a proven practice for delivering emergency medicine, and it’s just as effective in design, in business and in life.